BALTIMORE — It wasn’t a dazzling 10-length runaway of the type that other recent Preakness winners have scored, but Curlin’s photo-finish victory Saturday was a stunning, brilliant performance.
The colt had come into the Triple Crown series with a lack of experience that figured to be insurmountable. He had a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby that might have taken a toll even on seasoned horses. He appeared to be hopelessly beaten in mid-stretch at Pimlico. But he was able to unleash a powerful acceleration in the final yards and catch a genuinely good rival, Street Sense, spoiling that colt’s chances of sweeping the Triple Crown.
One can watch hundreds of races, at every level of the sport, without seeing a horse do the things that Curlin did in the last half mile of the Preakness. The colt had stumbled coming out of the gate, and didn’t get a chance to display his natural speed. This may have been a blessing in disguise, because the leaders were setting a torrid pace, a half mile in 45.75 seconds.
As Xchanger and Flying First Class ran each other into the ground, Hard Spun appeared to be in a perfect position, sitting in third place and stalking the leaders. But Mario Pino made an ill-judged premature move to fly past them, and his mount reached the six-furlong mark in 1:09.80, one of the fastest fractions ever in the Preakness.
The stage was set for the top two betting choices, Street Sense and Curlin, to make their moves. Robby Albarado and Curlin made the first move, surging past Hard Spun to take the lead. But then Calvin Borel sent Street Sense past the tiring horses in the field drove inside Curlin and shot past him, opening a lead of nearly two lengths.
“I thought I was home free.” Borel said.
Indeed, the Preakness appeared to be over; horses almost never re-rally after being passed so decisively. In a matter of minutes, the racing world was going to be speculating about Street Sense’s prospects of sweeping the Triple Crown. But Curlin wasn’t finished.
“He has that way about him that he just wants to win,” Albarado said.
The colt began to gain ground, stride by stride, and Street Sense, who had finished so powerfully to win the Derby, couldn’t offer resistance.
Racing fans may debate whether this was all Curlin’s doing, or whether Street Sense lacks a killer instinct in such situations, but the two combatants hit the wire almost simultaneously. The finish was so close that television viewers couldn’t tell who won, but Borel knew. He turned to his friend Albarado and said, “You got me!” and Albarado raised his whip in triumph.
This would have been an amazing performance for a veteran racehorse, let alone one whose racing career began only 3 1/2 months ago. Curlin’s maiden win was so smashing that a partnership, harboring Kentucky Derby dreams, paid $3.5 million to acquire him. Curlin ran away with his next two starts and went into the Derby with much acclaim. But everybody knew the history he was trying to overcome. No horse with fewer than five career starts had won the Derby since 1918. No horse without 2-year-old experience had won it since 1882. Despite these competitive disadvantages, and despite being blocked two in the run to the first turn, Curlin managed to rally and finish third.
As promising as this effort was, there was no certainty that Curlin would improve in the Preakness. Even his trainer, Steve Asmussen, acknowledged that. The colt had been asked to do so much in such a short period of time that he might have regressed. Only the people closest to him were unsurprised that he advanced to a whole new plateau.
“Now everybody feels about him the way we always have,” principal owner Jess Jackson said. “This horse is going to be a Jackson.”
Curlin’s victory will, of course, focus more attention on his owners and trainers, and in some respects it is not going to be welcome attention. Curlin was originally owned by the Midnight Cry Stable of William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr. before they sold a majority share to the syndicate headed by Jackson. Gallion and Cunningham were lawyers representing defendants in the class-action lawsuit over the drug fen-phen until they had their licenses suspended amidst charges that they had misappropriated funds from the $200 million settlement.
Asmussen is one of the nation’s most successful trainers, but he is receiving some unwanted publicity this month on HBO’s program, “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” The program deals with the use of illegal drugs in horse racing and treats the trainer, who has had many medication infractions and served a six-month suspension last year, as if he is the poster boy for the sport’s drug problem. The people connected with Curlin may make it difficult for some fans to cheer for him wholeheartedly, but this is a colt whose guts and raw talent deserve respect and applause.